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Note: This article is a few weeks old. Since it was written, Reid Brignac was promoted to Tampa Bay and Desmond Jennings sustained a season-ending injury.
At the midway point of the 2008 season, it is a great time to review the performances of every player featured in the Rays’ Pre-Season Top 10 Prospect List. (I decided to go with the list compiled by Cork Gaines over at Rays Index.)
The highest-ranked prospect on the list, Evan Longoria, is making a strong case to get elected to the American League All-Star team, and is the mid-season favorite to take home Rookie of the Year honors.
While Longoria is already making an impact at the major league level, there are many other prospects in the Tampa Bay system enjoying fine seasons, though injuries have set back a prospects number six and nine, Desmond Jennings and Eduardo Morlan.
1. Evan Longoria—3B, Tampa Bay Rays: Longoria has been a force at the hot corner, emerging as one of the Rays’ most consistent offensive players while playing excellent defense at third base. He is batting .270/.342/.529, and currently ranks seventh in the American League with 15 home runs. The mid-season favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year, he is second among Tampa Bay regulars (behind Eric Hinske) with an .870 OPS, which is also the second-highest total among rookies in the majors. He is tops among newcomers with 36 extra-base hits as well.
2. David Price —LHP, Montgomery Biscuits : With his performance thus far, Price has proven why he was the consensus top amateur prospect entering the 2007 draft. Although he did not make a professional appearance after signing a record deal at the August 15 deadline, he still placed in the top three of every single Tampa Bay top prospect list this winter. Headed into the upcoming offseason, he will undoubtedly fill the top spot on next year’s round of lists. After going 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA and 37-to-7 K/W ratio in six starts at Vero Beach, the lanky left-hander earned a promotion to Double-A earlier this week.
In his first outing at Montgomery, on June 25, he scattered four hits in six solid innings, striking out seven to earn his first win. In seven combined starts, he is 5-0 with a 1.99 ERA, posting a 44-to-11 K/W ratio while holding opponents to a .182 batting average in 40.2 innings pitched. If he continues to miss bats and put up zeroes, he could earn another promotion in the near future, though the odds of him becoming the 2008 version of Joba Chamberlain are fairly slim.
3. Jake McGee —LHP, Montgomery Biscuits: When the organization decided to promote Jeremy Hellickson and Price to Montgomery, it was not too difficult to imagine the Biscuits, with a starting rotation featuring four of the premier pitching prospects in the minors, dominating the Southern League in the second half. The week did not go according to plan, however, as Hellickson surrendered five homers in his first Double-A start and McGee tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. The 22-year-old southpaw will undergo Tommy John surgery—another patient for baseball’s busiest doctor, James Andrews—and is out indefinitely.
Before the injury, McGee was 6-4 with a 3.94 ERA in 15 starts. He was among Southern League leaders with 65 strikeouts and a 1.31 WHIP as well. While he is still young enough to make a full recovery—and could come back throwing harder than before, though there are few lefties in the minors who can match his pre-injury, mid-90s velocity—the pitching depth in the Tampa Bay farm system was dealt with a huge blow.
4. Wade Davis —RHP, Montgomery Biscuits: Deciding between Davis and McGee was really a toss-up this winter, with several prospect writers going with McGee, despite his below-average secondary offerings, for one reason—he is a lefty. Although the right-hander in the talented tandem struggles with his command at times, he has a true power arm with an excellent curve ball and arguably the highest upside of any pitcher in the Rays’ system—perhaps except for Price, whose excellent command rivals any pitching prospect in the minors. In 16 starts, he has had some ups and downs for the Biscuits in the first half, posting a 7-5 record, 62-to-38 K/W ratio and 1.35 WHIP while surrendering only five home runs in 88.2 innings pitched. His numbers were inflated after his poor outing on June 18, when he did not make it through the third inning, walking five while allowing six earned runs in 2.1 innings.
Update: Davis’ record dropped to 7-6 on Sunday, as he allowed all five runs in the Biscuits’ 5-4 loss to the Mobile BayBears, raising his ERA to 4.14. He struck out seven while only walking one, but surrendered seven hits, including two homers, in the loss.
5. Reid Brignac —Shortstop, Durham Bulls : For two years now, Brignac has been labeled as the Rays’ shortstop of the future. After Tampa Bay selected prep infielder Tim Beckham with the number one overall pick in the 2008 draft, however, it is no longer a sure thing. While Beckham, 18, is several years away from making an impact in the majors, many scouts feel that he has the athleticism, instincts, range and throwing arm to remain at the position as he rises up the Tampa Bay farm system. The Griffin High School product signed relatively quickly, and made his first start at shortstop for Rookie-level Princeton on Saturday night. Coming off a an MVP season in the California League in ’06, Brignac regressed at the plate at Double-A Montgomery last year, batting .260/.328/.433. Although he was among Montgomery team leaders with 17 homers, his approahc at the plate proved to be a cause for concern. While he struggled at the plate, though, he made tremendous progress in the field, emerging as one of the top defensive middle infielders in Double-A; this appears to have ended all of the discussion about Brignac being forced to make the switch to third base.
The offensive struggles have continued for Brignac at Triple-A in the first half of '08, as he has drawn only 21 walks in 74 games. In 271 at-bats, he has a .743 OPS, batting .260/.311/.435 with seven home runs through Sunday. The power potential is still there, but he needs to improve his approach at the plate. While he is no longer a sure bet, at least not to become the “shortstop of the future” in the Tampa Bay organization, he is still one of the more promising infielders in the International League.
6. Desmond Jennings—OF, Vero Beach Devil Rays : Jennings, a former quarterback recruit at the University of Alabama, is the best pure athlete in the Tampa Bay farm system. He made tremendous progress as a pure basbeall player in ’07, emerging as one of the Rays’ top position player prospects after hitting .315/.401/.465 for the South Atlantic League-champion Columbus Catfish. He also led the circuit with 45 steals, and, as he projects to hit for more power as he develops, has a realistic chance to turn into a 20-40 threat in the majors. He did not get off to the best start to this year, though, suffering a back injury and then injuring his left shoulder in spring training. While he missed the better part of the first two months of the season, he is now back, starting in the outfield and leading off for Vero Beach. In 23 games, he is batting .259/.357/.412 with two homers, five RBIs and five stolen bases in six chances.
7. Jeff Niemann —RHP, Durham Bulls: It has now been four years since Tampa Bay selected Niemann in the first round out of Rice University. A plethora of injury setbacks have made it seem even longer than that. While he is not yet a mainstay in the Rays’ starting rotation—as many predicted he would be at this point—he finally made his long-awaited big league debut this spring, going 1-1 with a 5.79 ERA in two big league appearances in April, when Tampa Bay starters Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza were on the shelf with injuries. At Durham, the former College World Series hero is 5-2 with a 4.20 ERA, having posted a 51-to-20 K/W ratio and 1.19 WHIP while holding opposing batters to a .222 average in 55.2 innings pitched. All of the injuries have taken a toll on him, making it unlikely that he will turn into a future top-of-the-rotation starter in the majors. While he gets lost in mix because of the surplus of talented arms in the Tampa Bay system, however, he still has strong enough stuff to get hitters out and miss bats at the major league level.
8. Jeremy Hellickson—RHP, Montgomery Biscuits: Hellickson dominated the Florida State League this spring, going 7-1 with a 2.00 ERA in 14 starts with the Vero Beach Devil Rays. Hellickson, 21, showed a tremendous ability to miss bats, registering a 83-to-5 K/W ratio while limiting opponents to a .224 batting average in 76.2 innings pitched. He was named as the starting pitcher for the East squad in the league's All-Star game, though he did not pitch due to a blister on his pitching hand.
For his stellar performance, he—along with his Vero Beach teammate, Price—was promoted to Double-A Montgomery this week. For one of the first times of his young professional career, however, the Iowa product was hit hard on Friday night in the Biscuits’ 12-8 loss at Mobile. He allowed eight earned runs on eight hits, including five home runs, in 4.2 innings of work, striking out only one batter. With two outs in the fifth, he surrendered back-to-back-to-back homers, leading to his early exit from the game. While it was not the debut that he had in mind, the promotion to the next level is a huge step, perhaps a turning point, in his development. Tampa Bay has been patient with Hellickson since they selected him in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. His outstanding performance on the mound to this point, however, left the organization with little choice but to promote him. A Scout.com Top-100 prospect, how well he performs at Montgomery the rest of the summer will determine if he can inch up even higher on the list.
9. Eduardo Morlan—RHP, Montgomery Biscuits: Morlan is the minor leaguer whom Tampa Bay acquired in December’s blockbuster deal that ended Delmon Young ’s days in St. Petersburg. While Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza—who nearly threw a no-hitter in a dominant one-hit complete game shutout against the Florida Marlins earlier this week—have had a direct impact on the Rays’ strong first-half, Morlan has the chance to really make the deal hurt for Minnesota. Like Jennings, though, he missed most of the first half, injuring his shoulder after six relatively ineffective performances to begin the season. He rejoined the Biscuits’ bullpen a few weeks ago, but has only made five relief appearances since coming back to the team. In 13.0 innings pitched, he has surrendered 17 hits, two of which were homers, eight runs (seven earned) while walking three. Despite an injury-plagued beginning to his tenure in the Tampa Bay farm system, he remains one of the top relief prospects in the minors.
10. Ryan Royster —Outfield, Vero Beach Devil Rays: Royster, selected by Tampa Bay out of an Oregon high school back in 2004, came out of nowhere to lead the Columbus Catfish to the Sally League Championship with a monster offensive season. He won the Organizational Triple Crown, batting .329/.380/.601 with a league-best 30 home runs and 98 RBIs. However, the transition to the Florida State League has not been as smooth for Royster, who has only eight extra-base hits and a .606 OPS in 70 games. He is hitting .244/.293/.313, and the only category in which he ranks among league leaders this go around is strikeouts, as he has been punched out 77 times.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.